Trump administration revokes Obama-era fuel economy standards

The White House announced Thursday that it is moving ahead on its much-anticipated plan to roll back the tough fuel economy mandate set by the Obama administration. Acting EPA chief Andrew Wheeler said the agency also intends to eliminate California's authority to set its own automotive emissions rules — guidelines that have traditionally been tougher than those put in place by the Environmental Protection Agency for the rest of the country.

By lifting the California waiver put in place in 1975 as part of the original Clean Air Act, President Donald Trump's administration is effectively neutering a potentially significant challenge to any rollback of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards. By setting levels of automotive CO2 emissions, California regulators could effectively retain higher mileage targets. The 10 other states and the District of Columbia that have adopted the tougher California guidelines would also be impacted by the White House move.

Recently departed EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt outlined the administration's plans on CAFE in April, setting in motion a series of public hearings as well as a meeting between Trump and auto industry leaders to discuss a rollback.

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Auto industry officials, notably including former Ford CEO Mark Fields, vocally supported a rollback during meetings with the then-new president in 2017. Facing heavy pressure from consumer lobbying groups, they have largely been silent about a cut in mileage targets in recent months, but there remains strong support in the industry to eliminate the California waiver.

"From the automakers' perspective, they'll be happy not to deal with CARB," (the California Air Resources Board that sets emissions targets), said Dave Sargent, the head of automotive research for J.D. Power and Associates. "What they want more than anything is one set of rules. Multiple sets of rules get expensive" to meet, as that can mean designing one model for states following the California rules and another model for the rest of the country.

Environmental groups, as well as California officials, like CARB chief Mary Nichols, have made it clear they intend to fight any plan that would eliminate the Golden State's rule-making authority and while Nichols had said earlier this year that she was open to discussing a mileage rollback she was skeptical that it could be justified.

Finalized during the first Obama term, the guidelines currently in place call for automakers to each reach a fleet average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 — though with credits and other modifications, the actual figure is expected to wind up in the low to mid-40 mpg range.

"Our analysis clearly indicates that the car companies are fully capable of meeting the CAFE standards and they are able to do so with great savings for consumers," echoed Jack Gillis, the Consumer Federation of America's director of public affairs.

California not only supports that target but has put in place guidelines setting a minimum number of zero-emissions vehicles that all but the smallest carmakers would have to sell in that state over the coming years. California is already the country's largest market for what are commonly referred to as ZEVs, but automakers complain it will be tougher to comply in the other states that have adopted the clean-car rules, such as Vermont.

The Trump administration has echoed the auto industry's primary position against the Obama CAFE rules: that they are two expensive to meet but, based on new meeting records filed with the Office of Management and Budget, it has worked up another argument. Any mileage rollback will have to be approved by both the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA's version is titled, the "Safer and Affordable Fuel Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule." The agency will argue that by targeting mileage vehicles will become less safe, among other things by becoming lighter.

California and 16 other states, along with the District of Columbia, filed a lawsuit on May 2 challenging the planned CAFE rollback. Further legal action is expected to follow should the administration attempt to block the California CO2 waiver, as well.